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You would have to have been snoozing along with Sleeping Beauty the past couple of years to not know of or heard something about “telemedicine” or “telehealth”. When most of us were sent home to ride out the recent pandemic for an extended period of time, the medical profession went into hyper-drive to continue providing care as much as possible, a lot of which translated to virtual health care. Telemedicine existed well before 2020 but was still not very mainstream, and efforts to expand this mode of delivering care were there, but not necessarily a high priority. But, of course, that all changed very rapidly. For many, both providers and patients, this change was welcomed!

 

Now that life has returned somewhat back to normal, the use of telemedicine has certainly declined. However, that decline did not go back to the utilization rates before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but instead remains much higher. In fact, according to recent data, telemedicine service utilization has stabilized at 38 times higher than at any time prior to the pandemic1. In-person visits with providers will likely remain the preferred, and in many cases necessary, method for patients to receive care for the foreseeable future. However, telemedicine has certainly become more mainstream and accepted. This shift was facilitated by regulatory changes to expand telemedicine during the pandemic, and many of those changes have now been made permanent. This in turn has fueled more investments into virtual care and digital health technology innovation, which will undoubtedly expand telemedicine care to even higher levels.

So, what exactly is telemedicine / telehealth and what are the key components? And what should we expect to see develop further in this sector? We’ll explore these questions and what the future of virtual healthcare may look like.

Image: Parkview Health Rapid Diagnostic Unit

Parkview Rapid Diagnostic Unit Telehealth
Parkview Rapid Diagnostic Unit Telehealth
Saint Rita's Medical Center Surgery Center

Telemedicine, Telehealth – Which is it?

There are several definitions out there, but most agree that telemedicine refers specifically to conducting clinical services remotely between a patient and a provider. Telehealth is a broader term encompassing many other services and applications. From a policy standpoint, this becomes an important distinction. The Center for Connected Health Policy (CCHP) describes it this way:

While “telemedicine” was commonly used in the past, it is being phased out in favor of “telehealth,” which is a more universal term for the current broad array of applications in the field. Its use crosses most health service disciplines, including dentistry, counseling, physical and occupational therapy, home health, chronic disease monitoring and management, and disaster management; it’s also expanded beyond traditional diagnostic and monitoring activities to include consumer and professional education.”

These distinctions are probably not as important to remember for those of us not in the healthcare profession. What is important is that regardless of whether healthcare services or education is delivered in-person or virtually, there should be no difference in quality and practice standards.

Image: Saint Rita’s Medical Center Surgery Center

Saint Rita's Medical Center Surgery Center

Key Components of Telehealth

The CCHP, in collaboration with the National Consortium of Telehealth Resource Centers, has furthered defined telehealth and telehealth policy. The “Telehealth Definition Framework3 was established to provide clarity on the use of telehealth and the key components. Today, those components include:

  • Live Videoconferencing (Synchronous)

This is what we as patients are most familiar with – meeting with a provider in a live two-way session using electronic devices with audio / video and internet connection. This can occur in two ways: virtually from the patient’s home, or in a telemedicine room in a healthcare facility assisted by a patient presenter. It is also the means that providers use for remote consultation with other providers at the patient’s side in an Emergency Department or an Intensive Care Unit along with digital patient monitoring equipment. Health education is also now widely shared virtually providing health professionals the ability to conduct and attend the same continuing education programs in multiple locations. Patients can also receive education on disease management and other important health information.

  • Store-and-Forward (Asynchronous)

This component is primarily for healthcare professionals, typically specialists, to assist in diagnosis and consultations when live virtual or in-person contact is not needed. Store-and-Forward provides access to data from sources such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs, as well as photographs, patient data and video clips of patient exams. With this type of consultation, the patient, primary care provider, and the specialist do not need to be scheduled at the same time, which improves the efficiency of healthcare services.

  • Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM)

This may sound a little like stalking, but it’s actually for the benefit of the patient! This is the technologies and devices that exist today for a person’s health and medical data (vital signs, weight, blood sugar and oxygen levels, etc.) to be collected electronically and transmitted to a provider who may be in a completely different location. This can occur both for care services while in a medical facility and for support services after a patient is discharged to their home or care facility. The benefits include helping people stay healthier, reduced length-of-stay and re-admissions at hospitals and allowing older and disabled individuals to live in their homes longer.

  • Mobile Health (mHealth)

Health information at our fingertips – that’s “mHealth”. While relatively new, it is a rapidly developing and expanding sector of healthcare technology. With the use of cell phones, tablets, and other hand-held devices, health information and education can be shared quickly and broadly through dedicated applications (apps). As with most developing technologies, policies for mHealth are continually being generated and adapted, and both the FDA and FTC have some jurisdiction and oversight.

Image: Rush Memorial Hospital Intensive Care Unit

Rush Memorial Intensive Care Unit Telehealth
Rush Memorial Intensive Care Unit Telehealth
Parkview Medical Park Clinic

What Does the Future of Telehealth Look Like?

Although the pandemic itself appears to be on a downward trend, several changes such as the increase in telehealth use will likely be sticking around, and potentially developing even further. What direction does telehealth seem to be going in?

    • Telehealth Business Model

In-person care will always be part of the healthcare system, but more and more healthcare business models will likely start to incorporate more of a hybrid approach, offering both in-person and virtual services. With a virtual option, care can be more widely distributed, it can be more convenient for patients, and care can potentially be more affordable. This hybrid virtual and in-person model is the reality of the future of healthcare.

    • Types of Telehealth Care

Initially, telehealth was limited in its ability to serve patients of certain needs. The future of telehealth is seeing advancements that will allow care to be given virtually for even more clinical conditions than before, such as respiratory disease, cancer, diabetes, behavioral health, and more. What’s important to remember is that the quality of care should remain the same as if it were in person.

    • Telehealth for Mental Health

The past few years have risen a need and awareness for mental and behavioral health care, with the majority of patients utilizing telehealth being diagnosed with mental or behavioral health conditions. There is also a shortage of mental health providers, which makes the need for telehealth much more prevalent. Telehealth gives those who do not have close access to a mental health provider a resource in their own home to get the care they need. Telehealth will likely expand in this particular healthcare sector to better serve the growing number of mental and behavioral health patients in need.

Image: Parkview Health Medical Park 11 Clinic

Parkview Medical Park Clinic

Telehealth has become a reliable and necessary way to deliver care and will continue to develop as the world of healthcare works to reach more patients and provide a higher quality of care. In-person services will always be essential to healthcare but balancing virtual along with in-person care allows healthcare to expand in a positive way, serving more people and providing more options.

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